by Stephen B. Clark
excerpted from his book, Man
and Woman in Christ, Chapter 14 (entire book now online)
Copyright © 1980 by Stephen B. Clark
CHRISTIANS THROUGH THE centuries have viewed the scriptures as a unique
book (or collection of books). They have believed that the scriptures come
from God in a way that no other book has. They have said that God is the
author of scripture and that scripture is his word which he has spoken
through human beings. If these statements are true, or even if they contain
some truth, a person's approach to the scriptures cannot be merely detached
or scholarly. Each person is approaching a book which is intended to address
him or her personally; in fact, it is a book in which God is addressing
him or her personally.(1)
Scripture is not simply interesting data or thought. By its very nature,
it calls for a response. Therefore, the way a person talks and thinks about
scripture is itself a religious response. The approach people take to the
scripture is an important part of the way they approach God. This
fact may be disguised behind phrases like "Con temporary Theories of Inspiration,"
"The New Hermeneutics," "A Realistic Interpretation of the Scripture,"
"Biblicism and Fundamentalism." But it is nonetheless true that the way
people read the scripture involves their response to God. From the Christian
point of view, the question of the authority of the scripture is a question
about how to approach God himself.
Few would deny that the scriptures teach about the roles of men and women. The question remains, however, how a person will respond to that teaching. Many people in secular society will catalog the views of scripture on this subject under such headings as "First Century Thought" or "Approaches of Pre-Industrial Cultures" or "Ideas from Great Religions." They will, in other words, file them away as interesting specimens of human thought, or even as possible examples of significant human wisdom—products, perhaps, of religious genius.(2) However, such people will not decide that something is true on the basis that it is taught in the New Testament.
Others, who consider themselves to be Christians, will take a similar approach. They will catalog the scriptural views under headings like "Paul's Opinion" or "Primitive Christian Thought." These people will, in other words, respect the scriptures as worthy of great attention, as important sources or data from which their opinions will be formed, as opinions which they would not want to blatantly contradict; yet they too will not hold a viewpoint or adopt an approach on the basis that it is taught in the New Testament. All of these people might give the scriptures weight, authority in the sense of something to which one should pay attention and be influenced by, but they will not give them authority in the sense of being the highest norm for their minds and lives. The position of scripture, once ascertained, will not be automatically decisive for them.
The question of authority is concerned with scripture as a norm or criterion for the beliefs and way of life of Christians. The scriptural teaching on the roles of men and women has a normative aspect. It involves questions of fact, but it is primarily the presentation of instructions for how Christians should conduct themselves. Even where possible facts such as God's creation of the human race as male and female for his own purposes come into the teaching on men and women, their acceptance as facts rests upon the authority of scripture for determining the beliefs of Christians. The issue, then, is whether the scripture ought to determine the way people think and act in the area of the roles of men and women.
The question of authority not only differs from the question of content—that is, what the scripture teaches-but it also differs from the question of application. The scripture could, for instance, teach a consistent approach to the roles of men and women with the highest authority, and its teaching still might turn out to be inapplicable to all peoples subsequent to the industrial revolution. It might not even be addressing the situation of modern people. Part Three of this book will treat questions of applicability. The question of authority, however, is distinct from the question of applicability. The question of authority concerns personal response.(3)
The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20:31; 2 Tm 3:16; 2 Pt 1:19-21; 3:15-16), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.In Catholic teaching as well as in Protestant teaching, nothing can overrule or contradict scripture-not pope, council, inspired prophet, or great theologian.
Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures. Thus "all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tm 3:16-17,13 Gk. text).(16)
Freedom and Rights
Some people today would dispute
the notion that submission is the ideal for the Christian. They claim that
such an ideal is opposed to the Christian freedom proclaimed in the scriptures.
Yet the submission being described here is closely related to true Christian
freedom. Paul is the great apostle of Christian freedom, but the Christian
freedom taught by Paul is not the same as the freedom extolled by modern
man. For the modern mentality, freedom is the ability to set one's own
standards, to submit to no person, to chart one's own course. The freedom
Paul teaches about comes in Christ and through faith in him.(21)
It is a freedom defined primarily in relationship to the Mosaic law. The
two great epistles of Christian freedom, Galatians and Romans, are concerned
with questions about the need for Gentile Christians to conform to the
Mosaic law, especially in its ritual provisions. Christian freedom as taught
by Paul, then, is first of all a freedom from the ritual provisions of
the Mosaic law, at least for the Gentiles. But it is also a freedom from
the (Mosaic) law in its entirety as the way to enter into the full relationship
with God and the full status as his people. Behind this change is an understanding
that the purpose of law is not to give life but to reveal sin (Rom 7:7-12).
Life, relationship with God, power to live the Christian call, come through
faith in Christ and through the Spirit of God given to us.
The freedom that Paul teaches is not, however, a freedom to disobey the ethical prescriptions taught in Old and New Testament alike, much less a freedom to set our standards and to submit to no one.(22) There was a temptation to abuse Paul's teaching in that way, but Paul understood that temptation as providing an opportunity for the flesh, that is, an opportunity to follow our own will and desires (Gal 5:13). Paul expected freedom to operate in precisely the opposite way. It should produce an ability and a desire to live the kind of life which not only fulfills the commands of the law but which proceeds to an even more complete and demanding love. It is a freedom to submit to God and to do his will with a more perfect submission than had existed under the law, when the commands of God were written on tablets of stone and not on the heart (2 Cor 3:3). It is freedom from the law, but a freedom that is meant to put us into a direct relationship of obedience to our Father as his sons and daughters (Gal 3:23-4:7). In fact, the same Paul who insisted so strongly on freedom could also insist strongly on obedience, and could act as a disciplinarian, commanding respect for his own authority because his authority and discipline were spiritual, conferred on him by the Lord Jesus under the New Covenant (I Cor 4:18-21). Freedom is another area in which contemporary man is ready to find contradictions in Paul, contradictions that never existed in Paul's mind. Here again, the contradictions are not in scriptural teaching. Rather, they arise when the scriptural texts are interpreted using a modern understanding of freedom alien to the scriptural mentality.
Submission, then, does not conflict with "freedom" in the scriptural sense. It can be undercut, however, by an approach to freedom which leads Christians to understand their lives in terms of their own rights. The discussion of the roles of men and women is often framed in a way which stresses the need to give women their rights and which urges them to claim or defend their own rights. At first, such an approach was used to claim for women basic legal protections and constitutional guarantees. Presently, it is often used to orient people toward seeking a kind of personal independence and individualism which conflict with the spirit of Christian teaching. We can often hear, for instance, that basic human rights include making one's own decisions, being independent upon reaching adulthood, expressing one's own opinions, developing one's full potential, having as much opportunity to do a particular job as anyone else. Moreover, we are sometimes told that these rights are violated not only when the government takes them away by force, but even when a group of people freely decide to establish their common life on different principles.
The term "rights" is a legal term, indicating something which gives us a claim in court. "Rights" in this sense is an ancient term, and can be found in scripture. The broader idea of basic human rights, or of the rights of man, was formulated later in human history as a way of developing certain principles for framing the constitutions of modern states.(23) The origin of this approach will be discussed in Chapter Nineteen. This broader concept has much utility, especially as a protection for individuals in a pluralistic state which cannot presuppose a shared view of fundamental social and ethical questions. The term "the rights of women" is certainly appropriate in discussions about how legal protection should be given to women in contemporary society. However, when that legal rights framework is brought into a Christian discussion, it normally orients the whole discussion in a direction that is alien to the basic Christian context. It leads to a frame of mind in which people become oriented primarily to their own welfare, it leads them to even make demands on the Lord himself. In short, the legal rights framework used as a basis for a Christian discussion leads away from an attitude of submission, of eagerness to find out what the Lord is saying, and of readiness to accept and obey his will.
Legal rights, then, is not the proper basic framework for issues concerning the people of God. The "constitution" of Israel, and that of the Christian people, rests on an entirely different basis than those of modern states. The scripture does not speak about "the rights of man." From the scriptural point of view, we have no intrinsic and inalienable rights.(24) Women have no rights, but men have no rights either. Human beings are God's creatures, totally at his disposal. In the book of Isaiah, the Lord says,
"Woe to him who strives with his Maker,The "constitution" of Israel was based upon a covenant relationship between God and man, a covenant which God gave and men accepted.(25) The basic framework is not one of rights but of promises and commandments: the promises of God as to what he would do for his people if they were faithful to the covenant, and the commandments of God as to how his people should relate together and to others. The protection of "strangers" (that is, of resident aliens), for instance, was not based on "the rights of the strangers." Rather, it was based upon God's commandment to his people: "Thou shalt not oppress the stranger among you." God is a sovereign creator. His commandments are not based on rights that he must recognize, but on his own nature (including his goodness) and his purpose. His commandments express his plan for his people as an unfolding of his purpose in creating the human race. This is not to deny that often his purposes and his commandments can be understood by considering the way he created the human race. It is to deny, however, that a discussion with God can properly be conducted in terms of rights, or that a Christian's basic understanding of the roles of men and women can be. To think in those terms puts human beings in a false position, and induces them to call God to account for how he respects the rights of his creatures. The framework of a Christian discussion should simply be: What does God want for the human race? What does God want of men and women? Those who approach him in that way will be in a much better position to hear his word.
an earthen vessel with the potter!
Does the clay say to him who fashions it,
'What are you making?'
or 'Your work has no handles?'
Woe to him who says to a father,
'What are you begetting?'
or to a woman, 'With what are you
in travail?' "
Thus says the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker:
"Will you question me about my children,
or command me concerning the work of my hands?
I made the earth,
and created man upon it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host."
Those who fear the Lord will not disobey his words,Understanding and Obeying
and those who love him will keep his ways.
Those who fear the Lord will prepare their hearts
and will humble themselves before him.
Submission to scripture should
not be approached in a rigid or inflexible way. In the minds of many people,
the term "submission to scripture" conjures up a picture of scripture as
a huge law code, a set of commandments, in which everything is a directive.
Not everything in scripture is a commandment. The scripture is a collection
of many different types of writing. It contains commandments, but also
teaching, maxims of wisdom, poetry, and what we might call disciplinary
decrees.(26) Some of scripture
is based upon what could be called "implied social structure." So far in
this book, all these types of scriptural literature have been considered.
All of scripture is to be approached with seriousness and submissiveness.
All of it is there for shaping our lives. But not all of it is intended
to shape our lives in the same manner. Major mistakes can be made in approaching
a poem or an ironical or hyperbolic statement as though they were laws
from the Code Napoleon. A few reflections on the different types of scriptural
literature should make the point clearer.
1. The commandments in scripture should be taken as commandments. When the Lord says, "Thou shalt not steal," people had better not steal. Moreover, they had better not redefine "stealing" in such a way that something can be judged as acceptable under our definition, but still falls under what the Lord forbids according to his definition.
2. There are differences among commandments. Some commandments concern basic righteousness and must be approached with tremendous seriousness. Others are commandments of right order, commandments designed to order life in a better way. These do not have the same weight (Mt 23:23). For example, the directives about manwoman subordination in scripture are not on the same level as the Ten Commandments and cannot be treated with the same gravity. Yet recognizing different weight to different commandments does not mean that we need only obey some of them. All commandments are to be obeyed.
Some people apply a traditional distinction between faith and order to most of the New Testament teaching about the roles of men and women, holding that these roles are matters of order, and the Christian people can change matters of order whenever it chooses.(27) Some order can be changed, but in the New Testament, as in the better Christian teaching of all ages, matters of order or discipline can also be matters of obedience to the Lord if he is the originator of the order or if he simply stands behind the order. In fact, commandments such as that to honor one's parents could be considered as commandments of order, yet they are basic and inviolable.
3. Commandments should be taken as they were intended. Some commandments about the roles of men and women are clearly intended by the scripture to be universal for all Christians--not merely for Christians at a particular time, or in a particular situation. For instance, the directive for the wife to be subordinate to her husband and for the husband to care for his wife is a commandment for Christians as long as there is marriage. If anything in scripture should be approached as a commandment this should.
4. Submission takes on a different character when its object is teaching, prophecy, poetry, or the other genres of scriptural writing that are not simply commands. The submissive response to a command is obedience, but the submissive response to other forms of speech is not always obedience. If, for instance, a woman were to approach the portrait of the ideal wife in Proverbs 31 as a set of commands to be obeyed, she might end up with a physical collapse. Proverbs 31 is intended to serve as an ideal or model, not a point-by-point command. Similarly, the teaching in scripture about Adam and Eve and God's purposes in creation is, for the most part, not easily "obeyed." Nonetheless, it is supposed to mold Christians' minds, so that they can see the area with God's vision. These genres of scriptural writing can help form the lives of those who are submissive to them, and they can mold their lives as firmly as commandments; yet submission to them is expressed differently than submission to commandments.
A special type of submission to scripture should have a fuller consideration because of its relevance to this subject. This case concerns submission to New Testament patterns of church order. For centuries Christian theologians have studied the patterns of community or church order in the New Testament (and beyond the New Testament) to discern a pattern which they could view as authoritative for the following generations. Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and almost every group of Christians have used this method to justify the approach taken to order and government in their denominations. Even now, few Christian theologians would say that New Testament and early church patterns have no validity as standards for Christian life today. Moreover, the early Christians themselves believed that many of their patterns of community order came to them from the Lord and that they were obliged to follow them.(28) Indeed, for Christians who still respect scriptural and traditional patterns of order and who do not feel themselves free to order the life of the Christian people however seems good to them, one of the weightiest arguments against having women as elders or ministers or priests is the argument that Christ himself chose only men for this position.
Recently, however, there has been a stress on the variety of patterns and approaches to order in the New Testament.(29) Some have correctly pointed out that the approach to ordering the life of the Christian community taken in Jerusalem in 35 A.D. and the approach taken in Corinth in 60 A.D. appear to have been somewhat different. The approach to ordering community life that we see in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and that which we see in the Didache are likewise different in important respects. The conclusion which some draw from this observation is that different Christian communities today can take different approaches, including different approaches to such questions as the ordination of women.
The recent approach of noting variety between New Testament churches has something to recommend it. This can help avoid a "blueprint" approach to following New Testament patterns.(30) The early churches may even have approached the roles of men and women somewhat differently. As was discussed in Chapter Five, some writers have held that there was a difference between the roles of men and women in Jewish Christian communities and those roles in Gentile Christian communities, although the evidence is far too weak to make such an assertion confidently. It is possible, then, that the early Christians did have two patterns of community order for women: one which included deaconesses and active service for women, and one without these features.
The evidence that some early Christian communities were free to order their church life somewhat differently does not lead to the conclusion that Christians today can take a fundamentally different approach to men's and women's roles. First, the stress on different patterns of community order was developed in the context of trying to deal with differences in forms of church government, for example, the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational approaches. The approach was developed, that is, for investigating an area in which few explicit scriptural directives are given, and in which Christian teachers for centuries have had to rely on tracing the pattern of how it was actually done and teaching the pattern they had traced as the correct form. Second, the observation about the existence of different patterns in the early church only applies to certain levels of a given question. Thus, there may be something to the view that some churches had one bishop presiding over the community and others had only a presbyterate, but there is no question that some men presided over a Christian community, and that the community was expected to be subordinate to them. While differences in approach existed, there were also uniformities.(31)
Third, on the subject of the roles of men and women, one finds a basic uniformity of approach concerning both the husband being head of the family and the elders or heads of the community being chosen from among the men. There is no credible instance which is different or which would suggest that a different pattern might have been followed. Communities may have structured leadership roles of women differently. One community may have had an order of deaconesses, while another may have instead relied on some of the widows. One community may have had a chief deaconess, while another may not have had one. One community may have assigned a deaconess some teaching functions that another community may not have allowed. But on many points, especially the most fundamental ones, no variation can be shown. Paul can even appeal to the universal practice of the churches on the issue of headcoverings, a practice where one might expect a variety of approaches (1 Cor 11:16; 14:36). Finally, and very importantly, the basic uniformity of pattern is also accompanied by the explicit directives in the New Testament both about husband-wife order and about the governors of the community being men, and the latter appears in the closest thing we have to an authoritative book of church order (1 Timothy). In short, in the area of the roles of men and women, submitting to the New Testament patterns of basic order for the roles of men and women does not entail a simplistic or overrigid type of "blueprint ecclesiology."(32)
Submission to scripture,
even obedience to clear commandments, should not happen legalistically.
Thus, it is not enough merely to hear a command and put it into practice;
rather, the intention behind the commandment must be understood. The hazard
of failing to grasp the underlying intention of a command is well illustrated
in the practice of a certain religious community, which had carefully observed
an old rule in its constitution that community members were not permitted
to eat chicken. At the time the constitution was written, chicken was a
great delicacy; the rule was intended to help community members achieve
simplicity of life. Until recently, the members of that community ate the
most expensive meats in good conscience, while carefully avoiding chicken—often
one of the cheapest meats in recent years. A further example of the need
to grasp the intention of a rule concerns practices designed to observe
the prohibition against braided hair in 1 Tm 2:9 and I Pt 3:3. In some
Christian groups, women never wear braided hair in any sense (not even
pigtails on the little girls), in order to obey that scriptural directive.
Their desire to obey the Lord may be very commendable, but it does seem
clear that the kind of braided hair that was being discussed in the passages
was a luxurious style of headdress, not simply any manner of braiding hair.
The intention of the passages is to prohibit luxurious adornment, not to
eliminate what most people nowadays would understand by "hair braiding."
Avoiding legalism also involves recognizing exceptions. At times, it might be right for a Christian to breach good order because circumstances make that the only reasonable course. If a husband and father has mental disabilities a wife might have to assume the role of head of the family, while a similar disability in a wife might require the husband to mother the children as well as to father them. The story of Deborah in the Old Testament is a canonized story of an exception from the normal order of the roles of men and women. Finally, avoiding legalism also means employing good judgment in determining the relative importance of different scriptural prescriptions. Not everything is important enough to die for. It is worth dying rather than burn a pinch of incense in worship of an idol (Rv 14:9). But it is not necessarily worth irreparably damaging a marriage in order to preserve a correct scriptural pattern of roles for men and women in all respects.
Avoiding legalism, however, does not mean following the "spirit" of the biblical teachings rather than the "letter," in the sense sometimes given to those terms.(33) When Paul talked about following the spirit rather than the letter of the law (2 Cor 3), he meant Christians following the law written on their hearts by the Holy Spirit rather than simply following the external code. Sometimes, however, the phrase "following the spirit of the biblical teachings" is used to refer to a process by which one does not really follow the biblical teachings at all. Rather, one finds certain values or principles in those teachings which one follows in one's own way. Someone operating in this vein "follows the spirit of the biblical teachings" on the roles of men and women, for instance, by valuing both men and women and by seeing the mutual responsibility in relationships which involve men and women. It is then suggested that as long as one is trying to follow the spirit of the teachings, one can avoid being literalistic about actually having the husband be the head of the family. By the same principle, one can also (as some have suggested) follow the spirit of the commandment against adultery by not having sexual intercourse with any married people whom one did not love.(34) "Following the spirit of the biblical teachings," then, can be a phrase which ultimately means not following the biblical teachings at all, but merely selecting aspects of them and obeying only what one thinks is important. It can be a way of avoiding submission to the Lord's word.
Neither does avoiding legalism mean disobeying directives in the scripture in order to avoid turning the gospel into law. Some currents of theology would want to make the gospel the key interpretative principle of the New Testament, seeing everything else as secondary.(35) These theologians stress the gospel as freeing us from the law, and they resist any efforts to approach the New Testament as law. In many respects, these currents emphasize important elements of the New Testament. They attempt to synthesize New Testament teaching in a way which preserves Paul's teaching on grace and faith. But the gospel certainly involves the lordship of Jesus, and the gospel is received in repentance and a commitment to obedience to the Lord. Our righteousness may not save us, but that does not mean that obedience can be eliminated from the Christian life. The scripture also talks about "lawlessness" (anomia). In fact, 2 Pt 3:15-17 sees this lawlessness as often expressing itself in scriptural interpretation and as leading to ruin:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scripture. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.The very difficulties of scriptural interpretation can sometimes undercut submissiveness to the Lord in scripture.(36) Often Christians feel (with good reason) that they do not know what the passages mean, how they were intended, or how they can be applied in a responsible way. In this area, as in others in the Christian life, eagerness to obey can make someone scrupulous or confused, and there is the possibility of committing a foolish mistake in an effort to obey. Such a possibility should not lead to replacing eager obedience with a cautious skepticism. It should rather produce a desire to balance eagerness with wisdom. The Lord is probably more pleased with someone who makes a foolish mistake in attempting to obey scripture than with someone who requires that everything be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt before considering obedience. At the same time, submission to scripture does not mean trying to compile a distinguished record of foolish mistakes. No one will probably ever be flawless in obedience, but the Lord is asking for a relationship with him which involves desiring to do his will, doing it as it is understood, asking for his light, and actively seeking to grow in wisdom and the understanding of his will. An attitude of submissiveness to God's word can easily become legalism and a burden, but it does not have to be. It can be a loving, trusting desire to do the will of the Lord, who for our sake died and was raised that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him (2 Cor 5:15).
1. Those who do not seem to fully accept or fully use modern methods of scriptural criticism will often be termed Fundamentalists by someone who considers them too uncritical either in their overall approach or in a given exegesis. Among the things which will commonly elicit such a label are approaches which seem to interpret the scripture without an adequate sense of literary form (such as interpreting the book of Jonah as a historical narrative), or which seem to fail to adequately ascertain the author's intention (for instance, by holding that women should not wear braided hair on the basis of 1 Tm 2:19 and 1 Pt 3:3). Here it is helpful to observe that people can be called Fundamentalists because they have rejected certain critical methods or principles after a great deal of thought and scholarship or because they are not too educated in scriptural interpretation and simply take passages out of context or use facile proof-text approaches.(43)One person, of course, could take all of these approaches or only some of them. Frequently, one or all of these approaches will be described as "reading or interpreting the scriptures literally."(44)
2. Those who hold what could be called a conservative view of the historical facticity of narrative sections of the Bible or of the inerrancy of the Bible in its statement of fact (scientific and historical as well) are often termed Fundamentalists. Those who hold that creation actually happened in six days, that a whale did swallow Jonah, that every discrepancy between accounts has to somehow be harmonized will often be considered Fundamentalists for holding such views. Those who call them Fundamentalists will sometimes view the problem as a failure to adopt proper methods of Biblical criticism (not understanding the literary form of Jonah, for instance, and thinking that it is a historical narrative). Sometimes they will view the problem as simple traditionalism.
3. Those who hold that the scripture should be obeyed when it gives a command without considering questions of applicability will often be termed Fundamentalists. The label can be applied not only to those who forbid women to wear braided hair but likewise to those who object to homosexual relationships on the basis of scriptural commands. On the other hand, it is not likely to be applied to someone who is a pacifist out of obedience to their understanding of scripture—thus showing that the term is normally used for those who are adopting what would be viewed as a conservative position.
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